Stefano Pioli – AC Milan – Tactical Analysis

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Juventus have won the Serie A title for the past nine seasons in a row. But this season, for the first time in over a decade, that appears to be under serious threat. The man leading that threat is the current AC Milan manager, Stefano Pioli. Although he performed well for Lazio and Inter Milan in his previous managerial stints, Pioli more recently struggled to manage expectations as Fiorentina manager. He was lucky to even get the AC Milan job in the first place and when he first arrived it was seen as a short-term solution. Now, Pioli has his team playing some fantastic football, en route to a potential title charge. The Red and Blacks remain undefeated in Serie A after 15 matches, ahead of a crucial match later today against Juventus. For all of their fantastic performances in 2020-21 so far, here is our Tactical Analysis of Stefano Pioli’s AC Milan.

system of play: 4-2-3-1

Stefano Pioli has played all fifteen matches so far in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. The Italian manager has remained consistent in system, but not necessarily personnel, especially given the times of the current world. Twenty-five different players have featured for AC Milan this season, twenty of which have featured in five or more games. Davide Calabria and Hakan Calhanoglu are the only men to make an appearance in all fifteen games, while Donnarumma, Kessie and Theo Hernandez are the other most consistent starters. These are not necessarily names of typical title winners, although Gianluigi Donnarumma has been hailed as the next Buffon since he was sixteen years old, and is beginning to live up to that potential.

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Although the centre-backs have changed more often than the fullbacks, Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjaer have formed a consistently formidable partnership in front of Donnarumma. Calabria and Theo Hernandez look like two of the best fullbacks in Europe this season, making up a stellar back-four that’s conceded just 16 goals in 15 matches. They’ve been helped massively by the midfield presence of Franck Kessie, as Ismael Bennacer and Sandro Tonali have battled for a place alongside the Ivorian. Ahead of the midfield two there’s been a host of players battling for places on the wing, although none have been more creative and influential as Portuguese youngster Rafael Leao. The 21-year old combined with Zlatan Ibrahimovic have scored 42% of Milan’s goals this season, alongside the help of Serie A assist king Hakan Calhanoglu. The only position that looks to need an upgrade for I Rossoneri so far is at right wing, where the young Romanian Alexis Saelemaekers has performed to decent effect this season after impressing on loan in 2019-20. Ante Rebic might be the better choice for Pioli moving forward, but Brahim Diaz has also battled for a place in the side and Zlatan hasn’t remained fit enough for Saelemaekers to lose his place. Leao has played up front in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, allowing Rebic to get more playing time on the left wing and Saelamaerks to retain his place on the right. Samu Castillejo is the only other player to feature in more than 10 matches so far this season for Pioli’s side, although most of them have been from the bench.

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What’s been perhaps most impressive of Pioli’s side this season has been their reliance on young players. Only Ibrahimovic, Kjaer and back-up keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu are over 30-years old. All other players to feature in the league this season are under the age of 27, and six of their twelve top appearance makers are under the age of 23. This bodes well for AC Milan not only in the short-term, but the long-term as well. Players like Rafael Leao, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Theo Hernandez can already be considered among the best in the world in their positions, with the world still at their feet. With such a young squad, one could wonder if they will have enough experience to get over the line when it comes down to it. However, in their formidable 4-2-3-1 formation, the side currently remain unbeaten, even despite being without Zlatan for 60% of their matches. Now let’s get into more of how Pioli’s team have succeeded in their 4-2-3-1 formation.

DEFENSIVE STRENGTHS

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One of AC Milan’s greatest strengths this season has been their defensive fortitude and their ability to win the ball back from the opposition. The team adopt a very narrow 4-4-1-1 shape in defense and also show signs of counter-pressing when they are in possession. One of the most prominent features of their counter-press includes a double defensive-midfield pivot of Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer/Sandro Tonali sitting deeper when the side attack. One of the two men will often drop into the defensive line to provide cover for Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria, as the other screens the back-four and marks the opposition’s number 10.

In spells without the ball in their own half, Milan’s defensive shape and narrowness has meant that the team have won more tackles per game than any other in the league. Their possession and passing statistics being lower than other teams in the league suggests one potential reason for why they’ve needed to win the ball back so many times, but it still demonstrates just how effective I Rossoneri have been at timing their tackles. Davide Calabria leads the way in that regard and has won more tackles than anyone else in Serie A this season. His total of 4 tackles per game is nearly 1 more on per game basis than anyone else in the league, and the second best in Europe’s top five leagues.

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They’ve also been brilliant in the air. This is partially due to Zlatan’s presence up front, but also their solidity at the back with the height and strength of players like Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjaer. Of teams to keep more than 50% of possession this season, AC Milan have won the most aerial duels per game (16.4). This hasn’t stopped them from conceding 7 goals from set-pieces, but it has been effective at dealing with crosses into the box and keeping the ball out of the back of the net as a whole.

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Finally, AC Milan adopt a relatively high press, especially when Ante Rebic and Alexis Saelemakers are in the side together. Rebic is used to gegenpressing from his days at Eintracht Frankfurt, while Saelemakers is also an astute tackler and more defensively-minded than other players in the side. Zlatan and Calhanoglu are not necessarily aggressive pressers, which means the team have to squeeze higher up the pitch and remain more compact when adopting this approach. The shapes that they’ve created in defense through this narrow press have been a contributing factor to their high number of tackles, even if all the players in the system are not necessarily players you would associate with a high pressing style.

playing out from the back

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As Bennacer and Kessie drop in to cover for the fullbacks in defense, they also perform a similar role in build-up-phases, coming to the left or right of Milan’s centre-backs to provide a third option, as the other midfielder completes a diamond shape. Pioli’s team can look for direct passes into Zlatan Ibrahimovic to nod down for other players, or for the creative Hakan Calhanoglu instead, who often looks to drop deep and pick up the ball. Illustrating this point, the Turkish midfielder’s average position in games is often in his own half, despite Milan not being a particularly defensively minded team.

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Milan can also build-up in more of a traditional 4-2-3-1 shape, utilizing the fullbacks, centre-backs and defensive midfielders as their key weapons for bringing the ball forward. With the fullbacks so good at pushing forward and making either overlapping or underlapping runs, the centre-backs/defensive midfielders are often afforded more room to bring the ball forward. Pioli’s team have had the second most vertical approach to their attack this season, with the quartet of Kessie, Bennacer/Tonali, Kjaer and Romagnoli often their most influential players in the build-up. But that’s not to say that AC Milan don’t use the wings, they just don’t use them to the same extent as other teams. In build-up phases Pioli’s team will often overload the left, such as Hakan Calhanoglu and Rafael Leao/Zlatan Ibrahimovic drifting to that side to combine with Hernandez and the left-winger, before looking for switches to the right. They can also do the same exact thing on the right side, overloading and switching quickly to free up space for the talented French fullback. Theo Hernandez has scored 4 goals with 3 assists this season, and this meticulous build-up involving quick switches of play has certainly been one contributing factor. Hakan Calhanoglu also has a unique role in changing the point of the attack, often coming in deep to receive and then picking out a looping diagonal pass on a first touch. This is certainly part of his flair as a player, and one of the ways in which AC Milan can favour a more direct approach rather than a slower build-up.

attacking flair

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With all of their talent across the pitch and the flexibility they have in playing out from the back, AC Milan have a variety of methods for breaking teams down and scoring goals. When they come up against very narrow teams, they can easily go wide and utilize the fullbacks. When they come up against teams a bit more open, they are also adept at going through their opposition, looking for incisive passes into Hakan Calhanoglu or the centre-forward. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in the side, their variety of attacking methods can be even more deadly. He’s adept in the air, good with his feet, and still has a lot of speed and agility in him for someone approaching 40 years of age. In fact, he’s scored 10 goals in 6 matches this season, the best goals per game ratio in Europe’s top five leagues. Considering his aerial presence, he can also nod the ball down for other players, and he links up well with the three in behind him. But Zlatan hasn’t been the only driving force for The Red and Blacks this season. Thirteen different players have found the back of the net this season, contributing to their formidable tally of 34 goals in 15 matches this season. Further, Hakan Calhanoglu is on par for his best season since leaving the Bundesliga.

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With six assists, Hakan Calhanoglu has created more chances than anyone else in Serie A. He’s also delivered the most accurate crosses and corner kicks, making him truly one of the top creators across Europe this season. When you add the fact that Zlatan’s won the most aerial duels and taken the most shots per game in Serie A of players to make 6 appearances or more, the two central attackers remain quite a deadly duo for opposition defenders to contend with.

concluding thoughts

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AC Milan have been exceptional in 2020-21, and are currently in the fight for the Serie A title. Pioli’s men have surpassed expectations of them this season, remaining unbeaten in fifteen matches. Whether or not they can successfully break Juve’s impressive title-winning record remains to be seen. However, their form even without Zlatan Ibrahimovic remains highly encouraging and the average age of their squad points to greater things to come for I Rossoneri in the future should they fail to win the league this year.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of AC Milan in 2020-21, after their unbeaten run to start the Serie A season. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses and share your thoughts on Twitter @mastermindsite, or in the comments below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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